Jerry Lundegaard is a car salesman in Minneapolis who has gotten himself into debt and is so desperate for money that he hires two thugs to kidnap his own wife. Jerry will collect the ransom from her wealthy father, paying the thugs a small portion and keeping the rest to satisfy his debts. The scheme collapses when the thugs shoot a state trooper and two innocent bystanders in rural Minnesota, drawing local Police Chief Marge Gunderson into her first homicide investigation. At first unaware that the homicides are connected to a Minneapolis kidnapping, Chief Gunderson draws closer to Jerry Lundegaard as his situation further unravels.
Quirky. Edgy. Goofy. Intense. All these adjectives describe the work of Joel and Ethan Coen in general and their 1996 award-winner, 'Fargo,' in particular. This wild, wonderfully weird, quasi-comedic thriller transports us to a far-off land filled with perennially cheery, exceedingly polite people who bend over backward to make the world a bright, happy place – when they're not killing each other. It's called Minnesota, and before I saw 'Fargo,' I believed it was one of our 50 states. Now I'm convinced it's really a foreign country. That's due to the Coen brothers, who exaggerate the region's distinct social flavor and Scandinavian heritage just enough to inject an otherwise routine crime drama with some unexpected homespun charm and delicious black humor. Although 'Fargo' has lost some of its sting – both comedic and violent – since its initial release 18 years ago, it remains a unique, well-crafted film that perfectly reflects the personalities and creative M.O. of its makers.
Brainerd is a sleepy rural community in central Minnesota that quickly wakes up when (very) pregnant Police Chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) learns of a gruesome triple homicide on the outskirts of town. The take-charge Marge quickly launches a full-scale investigation that encompasses both her comfortable snowy environs and the big city of Minneapolis. What she doesn't know is that the killings stem from a kidnapping engineered by debt-ridden car salesman Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy), who hires two incompetent thugs (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare) to abduct his rich wife (Kristin Rudrüd) so her tightwad tycoon dad (Harve Presnell) will pay the hefty ransom...which Jerry will split with his accomplices. If all goes according to plan, no one will get hurt, Jerry will pay off his debts and close a lucrative commercial deal, and everyone will live happily ever after. Almost from the get-go, however, things go horribly awry, and the intrepid Marge must try to make sense of a very bloody mess.
In retrospect, 'Fargo' feels like a warm-up for the Coens' other masterwork, 'No Country for Old Men.' Though the two films are far different in tone and execution, the basic themes of greed and justice pulse through them, punctuated by strikingly similar bursts of graphic violence and a subtle stylistic playfulness. (Don't believe a word of the "this is based on a true story" opening; it's a total, bald-faced lie.) Yet back in 1996, Joel and Ethan were less mainstream, more renegade, and their brash youthfulness shook up the film industry. 'Fargo' may be a bit more conventional than their previous works, but the way it mixes and matches genres and skewers the Upper Midwest captivated the film-going public during its initial theatrical run.
Though there's plenty of action, the film is really character driven, and the Coens, who picked up an Academy Award for their screenplay, create a gallery of fascinating specimens. The fun of 'Fargo' lies in watching all these eccentric creatures interact, and hearing them spout all the regional lingo. From the "Oh, yahs" to the "You betchas," the Coens perfectly capture the dialect's rhythm and timbre, and smoothly incorporate it into the dialogue. Today, it's hard to watch the movie and not think of Sarah Palin, whose speech patterns eerily mirror those of Marge and others.
McDormand doesn't appear until a third of the way through, but her work was good enough to earn her a Best Actress Oscar. Though not a typical award-winning performance – she has no big emotional scenes, nor does she visibly stretch her range – McDormand brings an endearing, genuine quality to the role, nailing the Minnesota cadences and perky affectations as she disappears inside her character. Like the film itself, her portrayal is both subtle and broad at the same time, and she makes Marge warm, spunky, and surprisingly real. 'Fargo,' of course, put Macy on the map, and he brilliantly embodies the in-over-his-head car salesman who's desperate to settle his mounting debts and emerge from his father-in-law's shadow, but can't escape the role of doltish lapdog he's been forced to play for so long. It's a marvelous piece of acting, and Macy was justly rewarded with a Best Supporting Actor nomination.
In all, 'Fargo' received seven Oscar nods, including ones for Best Picture, Director, and Cinematography. Though it's been eclipsed by 'No Country,' this searing blend of macabre humor and brutality stands as one of the Coen brothers' best efforts, and is very much an American original. What's more, anyone who sees it will never look at Minnesota the same way again.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
The remastered edition of 'Fargo' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case, with cover art that's different from the original version. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and default audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. Once the disc is inserted into the player, a promo for MGM's 90th anniversary releases immediately pops up, followed by the full-motion menu with music.
The main selling point of this 'Fargo' reissue - or should I say, the only selling point - is its remastered transfer. The 2009 Blu-ray release, though significantly improving upon the previous DVD's picture quality, disappointed many 'Fargo' fans due to its excessive noise, heavy grain structure, and problematic pattern reproduction. While such issues bothered me when I reviewed the disc five years ago, the transfer also possessed many strong points - rich black levels, sharp details, vibrant hues, and crisp close-ups - which I praised. All in all, I felt the 2009 transfer remained faithful to the original film and all of its original flaws, but that didn't mean watching it in high-def wasn't ocasionally frustrating. The nagging question now is...does this newly minted rendering fix the sore points that spoiled the experience for many a viewer, and merit a double dip?
The answer is an unqualified yes. The excellent video remastering makes 'Fargo' look like a newly minted movie, and it's a total joy to watch. The grain has been noticeably reduced, and in its place lies a silky smoothness that still appears natural yet accurately reflects the story's gritty nature. Gone, too, are all the creepy-crawlies that seemed to be covering the snowscapes in the previous transfer, thanks to all the video noise. The whites here are still bold, bright, and finely detailed, preserving the barren ruggedness of the rural Minnesota terrain and allowing us to see variances in the drifting snow, but they no longer look like they're alive. Patterns are now rock solid and totally resist shimmering, so the texture of clothing and upholstery is more pronounced. Edges are more refined, yet close-ups still exhibit significant amounts of detail, while blacks remain deep and inky, and fleshtones are stable and true. Colors are just as vibrant as before, but look just a tad richer in tone, and clarity and contrast have been ever-so-slightly boosted as well.
All the tweaking benefits the picture immeasurably, but the technicians haven't used a heavy hand. Corrections have been done judiciously and carefully, keeping the picture's integrity intact. 'Fargo' will never look perfect (and I'm not sure we ever want it to), but this is by far the film's best video transfer. If you're a 'Fargo' fan, you'll certainly want to trade in your old disc for this new remaster. It's certainly a step up from the old release, and well worth the investment.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix is identical to the one that graced the previous Blu-ray edition. The dialogue-laden track possesses some punch, but doesn't offer many opportunities for full-fledged surround sound. Still, it's a pleasant enough listening experience, with faint atmospherics occasionally offering a semblance of multi-channel effects. Crisp, distinct details, such as the crunching of snow beneath footsteps, help immerse us in the frozen setting, and a few sonic jolts (usually from a gun barrel) perk up the track. Not surprisingly, bass frequencies are weak, and there's little stereo separation across the front.
Dialogue, however, is well prioritized, and all the "yahs," "you betchas," and colorful ramblings of the main characters come through clearly. As far as music goes, Carter Burwell's majestic, often bombastic score seems a little out of place, but enjoys terrific fidelity, nicely expanding across the sound field with palpable presence and a marvelous depth of tone.
Even though this is far from a bowl-you-over mix, it's hard to imagine 'Fargo' sounding any better than it does here, and fans should be quite pleased with this lossless track.
Nothing new on the supplement front; everything here appeared on the previous Blu-ray and most recent DVD editions. While not extensive, there's enough solid material to do the film justice and entertain and inform those who wish to learn more about this Oscar-nominated work. All video is in standard def.
Audio Commentary – Acclaimed cinematographer Roger Deakins is most certainly a master of the photographic arts, but he's not so great at audio commentaries. Lengthy gaps and a lack of insight sink this rather lame attempt that never really gets off the ground. Wisely, Deakins sticks to what he knows, so almost all his remarks focus on the film's visual style, but because the Coens wanted a "bland look" for the film and restrained, "observational" camera work, there's not much for him to talk about. He continually addresses the low budget and simple setups, and talks about his experiences on various Coen projects, but rarely goes into much depth. If you listen to this at all, make sure you do so in conjunction with the Trivia Track; both will play simultaneously when the Trivia Track option is selected. (Unfortunately, this is not documented, and I didn't realize it until I had already slogged through the audio commentary on its own. Was I ticked? You betcha!)
Trivia Track – No gaps here. Steady barrages of pop-up ice chunks convey a wealth of interesting trivia on a wide range of subjects. We learn facts about the city of Fargo, the actors' varied backgrounds, the history of pancakes, and automobile sales stats, to name a few.
Featurette: "Minnesota Nice" (SD, 28 minutes) – This 2003 featurette involves all the principal cast and crew members, who speak with animation about the unconventionality of the Coen brothers (Macy half-jokingly refers to them as "a couple of stoners"), the film's dark humor and graphic violence, and the unique Minnesota atmosphere and lexicon. McDormand recalls how she didn't think her role was that interesting at first; Macy "pokes a hole in the true story balloon"; and we learn how various lenses, lighting, and locations help the film achieve its distinctive "real, raw look." Harve Presnell (who just died a week or so ago) is fondly remembered, and Macy and Peter Stormare relate amusing anecdotes about their respective audition processes in this entertaining and informative piece.
American Cinematographer Article – This substantive article takes a technical tack as it examines the look of 'Fargo.' The Coens and Roger Deakins discuss the various lenses and lighting used to create the film's natural look; specific shots and scenes are highlighted; and the benefits of a small crew are outlined. Some nice color photos dress it all up.
Still Gallery (SD) – Seventy color images comprise this comprehensive collection of 'Fargo' photos.
Theatrical Trailer & TV Spot (SD)
The Coen brothers don't always hit the ball out of the park, but this quirky mix of humor, mystery, and violence remains one of the most memorable films of the 1990s. Original, well crafted, and expertly acted, 'Fargo' satisfies on many levels, and the remastered video transfer on this new edition finally gives fans the practically perfect picture they've long craved. Though the audio and supplements remain identical to those included on the 2009 Blu-ray release, two vital questions loom large. Is the meticulously remastered image good enough to make this update an essential double dip for 'Fargo' aficionados? You betcha! And does it come highly recommended? Oh yah!
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.